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From IndyCar Driver To Owner: How Sarah Fisher ‘Leans In’

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downloadIn the bestseller, Lean In – Women Work and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, talks to women across the world encouraging them to “lean in” instead of being stopped by self-made barriers.

Sandberg tells women, “Don’t enter the workforce already looking for an exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision to make.”

For, Sarah Fisher, IndyCar owner and retired open-wheel driver, she has accelerated throughout her entire career.

Once-upon-at-time you could have described Fisher’s racing team as the “little racing team that could.”  This season, Indianapolis based Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR) is doing more than just surviving in the highly competitive world of IZOD IndyCar racing; the team is celebrating the construction of a $2.5 million fully function R&D facility and fan destination, the addition of a second car to the racing team, and a second place finish at the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Fisher is the heartbeat of SFHR, she has her foot on the gas pedal and is “leaning in” at 220 mph.

She started racing when she was five years old. Her parents met when her mother beat her father in a go-cart street race, but racing in her family was only meant to be a hobby. It wasn’t until Fisher recognized that she had a knack for the sport, and it was something that she could make a living from did she pursue it as a career.

“One thing my dad and mom did, which was amazing, they put me in a lot of different types of cars,” said Fisher to FORBES.com. “So I was able to quickly adapt and transition into a professional series.”

Fisher excelled as a professional open-wheel racing driver. She was the first female in IndyCar Series history to start from the pole position and earn a podium finish. At 19, she became the youngest woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and her nine Indy 500 starts marks the most starts for a woman in the history of the race. But for Fisher, being a woman was never the focal point of her racing career.

“For me it’s about quality, more importantly than being a female. I always had that same thought process my entire career,” Fisher said. “If I am talented and I’m competitive then I deserve a chance to be here just like everyone else. But if I go out there and I’m not competitive, then I should not get that opportunity.”

Despite her own quality versus gender viewpoint, being a female driver is what forced Fisher to adopt race car owner to her resume.

As a driver, she butted heads with an engineer whom she felt was chauvinistic and didn’t want her competing. On several occasions, she discovered parts on the car that were stacked against her, and she wasn’t confident because she couldn’t trust the car or engineer.

“I tried within reason all the different techniques of telling your boss you have a problem, and I couldn’t get anything resolved,” Fisher said. “I was forced to be in this very uncomfortable situation. So that’s why I decided to start this team on the founding principle of having good people working together on an overall mission.”

Together with her husband and general manager, Andy O’Gara, they launched Sarah Fisher Racing (SFR). Fisher noted that her ability to avoid controlling situations and influence those with whom she worked with required writing their paycheck.

In 2008, Fisher welcomed prominent Kansas oilman and serial entrepreneur, Willis E. “Wink” Hartman, as a sponsor. Fisher didn’t find Hartman; he found her.

Shortly before the 2008 Indy 500, Hartman was watching ESPN when he heard the story of Fisher’s attempt to qualify, but a sponsor’s check did not arrive. Hartman recognized her plight and wired the money that she needed to compete. Ultimately, he saw the potential in her American Dream and recognized that what Fisher was up to was much bigger than a one-time sponsorship, so together they formed SFHR in 2012.

In the beginning, Fisher’s race team was small enough that it made sense for her to fulfill the dual role of driver-owner. However, once the team expanded, she stepped away from the driving responsibilities and has since handed them over to Josef Newgarden, currently ranked 14th in the Izod IndyCar Series standings.

“A big part of what we do and why we are able to succeed is because we spend a lot of time doing our homework on the people side to make sure that we assemble the proper team,” Fisher said. “Behind everything that you see, all these great things there are people that we’ve handpicked to work together to elevate our team. That’s a big area of focus for us.”

Another focus of Fisher’s is growing sponsorships. SFHR is primarily backed by Hartman’s sponsorship, but Fisher recognizes from a business standpoint the team needs more. She notes that every team has its own financial plan, and a small team can budget in the $4-5 million range.  But budgeting more in the $7 million range allows for assembling the right team, testing, and R&D.

“It’s difficult for a young team to survive in this sport. It’s a challenging environment and difficult to be competitive out of the box,” Fisher said. “And it’s a Catch-22 situation.  If you’re not competitive, you don’t get sponsors.”

When asked what corporate sponsor is on her wish list, Fisher replied “Procter and Gamble would be my dream sponsor.” As a mother, wife, and CEO, she recognizes the value in developing partnerships with strong brands that will not only propel her racing team but also means a lot to American households.

Fisher attributes her success to trusting in people and finding balance.

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing,” said Fisher. “If you don’t enjoy what you do you’ll just be miserable, and your family will reflect on that. If you don’t enjoy what it is that you’re trying to achieve then find something else. Enjoy life and live for that.”

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Cadillac Racing: Where Luxury Meets Motorsports

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Cadillac Racing Detroit 2013

This story originally appeared on Forbes.com (6/17/2013)

Picture this.

You are offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride in a race car driven by motorsports veteran, Andy Pilgrim.

You suit up, put your helmet on, and climb into the car Dukes of Hazard style. The car is roaring and ready to go. But in a matter of minutes a rain storm sets in. Ugh. Now it is too dangerous to ride on a wet track with tires designed for dry conditions. So your trip around the course is reduced to a quick ride from pit lane to the paddock.

Now 15 minutes have passed, and the rain has stopped. But your ride in the race car still is not a go. Alternatively, a ride in the street version of the car is offered to you.

Do you take it? Yes. Are you a little disappointed? Sure. Does it end up being the thrill of a lifetime? Absolutely!

That was my experience at the Pirelli World Challenge Series in Detroit, Michigan when I rode in Cadillac’s 2013 CTS-V Coupe. 120 mph on a wet street race track is not what I expected at all! Who knew Cadillac, a brand known for luxury and comfort, has so much power?

Unless you are a racing aficionado, the Pirelli World Challenge probably is not a motor sports series that is familiar to you. It does not feature racings household names like Patrick, Gordon, or Castroneves. But what the 24 year old series lacks in star power, it makes up in performance.

The Pirelli World Challenge includes top of the line production based cars with four separate classes competition (GT, GTS, Touring Car, and Touring Car B-Spec). These race cars feature the same block and body of the vehicles that you would find on the showroom floor. In other words, there is a direct line from the manufacturer and aftermarket supplier, to the consumer.

Cadillac Racing competed in the series from 2004-2007, and due to the economic downturn it took a brief hiatus. But the racing team returned in 2011 stronger than ever. Since then its drivers Johnny O’Connell and Andy Pilgrim finished one-two in the 2012 GT Driver’s Championship. And Team Cadillac took home the 2012 Pirelli World Challenge Series GT Manufacturer’s Championship on the one-year anniversary of its first victory since rejoining the series.

2013 is shaping up to be another promising year for Team Cadillac. Sales are up 38%, (Cadillac’s best start since 1976) and its racing team is on pace to vie for another championship.

Forbes.com caught up with Cadillac’s Director of Emerging Markets, Jim Vurpillat, at the Cadillac V-Series Challenge in Detroit to talk about theV-Series, motor sports racing, and Cadillac’s quest to be the leading luxury and performance brand. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

On the V-Series and Cadillac Racing

Vurpillat: Our involvement in racing is about proving the performance credentials of the brand. When we started to develop our V-Series brand with our first generation CTS it was about getting our toe in the water, in that high performance category of BMW M and Mercedes-AMG, and proving that Cadillac performance can take on the worlds best.

With the second generation of cars, we just upped the game. The V-Series has been phenomenal for us. We’ve built up a following, and we’ve built up a great owner base. When we first got into it, there were a lot of people surprised. Now, they know we are there, and we have built up a lot of credibility.

On the similarities between Cadillac’s production cars and race cars

Vurpillat: One of the reasons why we got into this form of racing is because it is production based. That body comes right off of our assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan. It starts its life the same way a production car starts its life.

The base engine is the same it is a 6.2L V-8. The one difference is you can buy the production car supercharged. It produces 556 hp. The suspension geometry all has to be the same. Basically, 80% of the race car is production based.

On the economic downturn and its impact on Cadillac Racing

Vurpillat: We knew we were going to take a little hiatus in racing because that was the gap in between the first generation CTS family and the second generation. When we decided to come back, we probably could have come in a year earlier and raced the V-Sedan. But we thought it would be a good idea to race the Coupe. That pushed us into 2011.

The hiatus was the downturn and financial driven.  As soon as things started to get better, Mark Reuss said to us “let’s go racing.” We put the race program together in about eight months, which is quick to build a race car, test it, and be out on the track.

On Cadillac’s marketing strategy

Vurpillat: Our series is usually linked with a bigger series, which is usually IndyCar. So we wanted to use that opportunity to engage fans and performance enthusiasts; and educate them about the Cadillac brand. The V- Series is credible and takes a backseat to no one. There is a lot to do at our displays. We talk about the Cadillac V-Series, Cadillac performance, our race program, and get them excited about it.  Fans can come in and take ride in one of our simulators.

We have our V production cars there and that gives us the ability to attract fan interest. We take those leads and over a six-eight month period we track conversions to sales. That is how we determine our ROI with our investment on-site. On this program, we are well over a 5:1 ratio on our investment to payback which is phenomenal and off the charts. For us to be out on eight, nine, ten weekends with that commitment and those displays, it is a few million dollars.

On the future of Cadillac Racing

Vurpillat: I see our racing program growing. There is potential for us on a global basis and the possibility to race in some select races in China, Middle East and Europe. We can start to take what we’ve built here in the US as a series, and take that to some of our other markets.

For us being in a production-based series, there is a lot of excitement. The adage of race on Sunday, and sell on Monday is still there. It might not be the Monday after or a month after. It might be a year later. But it gets people excited and talking about it. What is more is engaging than “here is my car, and then here is the car on the track?”

BMW M, Mercedes-AMG, and Audi RS are great machines, and to have us in that consideration set says how far we’ve come as a brand and where we are going to continue to take it. For us it is a very simple strategy, it is about building the performance credentials of the brand. Racing falls under that. Our V-Series falls under that. We want people to think of Cadillac as performance and luxury. This is the beginning of a long journey.

Wonder what it is like behind the wheel of a Cadillac’s CTS-V Coupe? Here’s a lap of Detroit’s Belle Isle 2.3-mile, 13-turn concrete lined island circuit with Johnny O’Connell.

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General Motors and Roger Penske Return IndyCar Racing to Detroit

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Remember the great financial meltdown of 2008?

It was a stressful time all over the country, just ask the citizens of Detroit. Homes were being foreclosed, layoffs were occurring daily, and the days ahead were filled with fear and uncertainty.

Then the unthinkable happened.

General Motors, the iconic automotive giant, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2009. The century old automaker eliminated brands, cut loose dealers, closed assembly plants, and accepted $49.5 billion bailout from the federal government.

No one – not even GM – knew what the future would hold.

Four years later, GM has fought back and regained the number spot as the world’s largest automaker by selling nine million cars and truck worldwide.  While GM recently announced that it is cutting Super Bowl ads, the resurgence of the auto industry has made way for other avenues into the sports landscape –corporate sponsorships.

Only nine months ago it was announced that Chevrolet and Cadillac would sponsor the 2012 Detroit  Belle Isle Grand Prix. Chevrolet, concluded its record year (selling nearly 4.8 million vehicles), by signing a three-year deal to serve as the title sponsor. And Cadillac injected its athletic car lineage into the fold by sponsoring the V-Series Challenge presented by Metro Detroit Cadillac Dealers.

“For Cadillac, racing is all about performance and demonstrating the performance of our V’s and what we’re about as an automotive brand today,” said Don Butler, Vice President of Marketing for Cadillac. “Considering where we were just a few short years ago, I think it’s perfectly fitting that we’ve got racing back in Detroit here on Belle Isle.”

Detroit has a rich history of motor sports racing. From 1982-1988 Formula One racing competed in the streets of downtown Detroit. This was followed by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) from 1989-1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle Park, an island in the Detroit River, and used by CART until 2001. Major league racing took a brief hiatus and returned in 2007 and 2008 with the American Le Mans Series and IndyCar Series.

Finally, after four long years of constantly being reminded of the “tough economic times,” the roar of race cars has been restored in Detroit.

In addition to the commitment from GM, the return of racing is thanks in large part to billionaire IndyCar owner, Roger Penske, who has the reputation of turning whatever he touches into gold. Penske was a driving force behind the three-day event (June 1-3), and he received numerous accolades from the sponsors, drivers, and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

“We are very fortunate to have our business community led by Roger [Penske] and the General Motors hierarchy, otherwise this would have never happened again,” said Bing. “Not only are we doing the Grand Prix this year, it is a multi-year agreement, I think it gives us an opportunity in the City of Detroit to let people know that good things are happening. Our business community has been unbelievably supportive and our volunteers have been doing an outstanding job.”

While Detroit still faces economic challenges, the return of motor sports racing signals a brighter future for Detroit. It’s estimated that the 2012 Grand Prix will exceed the $55 million mark earned in 2008, which doubles the revenues from the 2009 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

If there was one downside to the race weekend, it would be the potholes that surfaced and created a two-hour delay, reducing the race from 90 laps to 60.  However, based on comments from the IZOD IndyCar drivers, the issues with the track won’t deter them from coming back next year.

“It’s important for us to be in the Motor City. There are not many cities that you come to that have that passion to reinvent themselves, it is definitely here,” said Dario Franchitti, 2012 Indianapolis 500 winner. “It was a minor problem today and it was fixed very quickly. It will not happen again, I can guarantee that the guys running it are just too smart and too organized. We’ll come back next year and go after it again.”

Good Night Sports Fans, 

Alana 

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